Five Mistakes Agencies Should Avoid in the RFP Process

A thoughtfully executed response can open doors beyond the current opportunity.

From an agency’s perspective, the receipt of an RFP* brings a near-simultaneous rush of excitement and dread. Excitement at the possibility of winning new business (or retaining a valued client) and sharing your agency’s value proposition. Dread about the complexity and urgency of the task ahead.

* “RFP” is the acronym for Request for Proposals, a document commonly issued by companies to solicit - on a competitive basis - strategic and/or tactical ideas and pricing from potential suppliers. In the experiential world, RFPs are generally issued for one or a series of specific campaigns, but may be issued in the hopes of securing a retained agency or agency of record (“AOR”).

During my 13 years at Pierce, an Omnicom experiential shop, I was significantly involved in our RFP responses. First as the agency’s General Counsel and later as its President. In my agency roles, I have been involved in inspirational, well-orchestrated team efforts that opened doors to long-term client well as some regrettable, poorly organized responses that completely missed the mark.

Through those experiences, as well as my experiences in guiding brands through their agency selection processes at Broad Cove and insight shared by colleagues on both the agency side and brand side of the RFP process, I offer the following list of common mistakes that agencies should avoid. [Note: I addressed common brand mistakes in this earlier post. We all have room to improve. :)]

To set the proper context for this list, I want to first briefly explore what an agency should be hoping to accomplish during the RFP. Obviously, any agency participating in a RFP process is hoping to win and either gain a new client, retain an existing client or expand their relationship with a client.

However, any agency that looks only at the immediate business opportunity is missing the bigger picture. A responding agency should be viewing the RFP as an opportunity to forge a larger and more enduring professional relationship with the brand issuing the RFP and with every stakeholder involved on the brand side of the process. The RFP presents an opportunity to show off your strategic, creative and operational chops. While you may not win the current RFP, a strong showing could set you up for future opportunities with the brand, with other brands under the same corporate umbrella or with a third-party brand when a brand stakeholder moves to a different company that also needs experiential services.

With that background in mind, here are some common mistakes that agencies need to avoid:

Not developing a deep understanding of the brand’s objectives.

Before putting a single word on the page, a responding agency should be able to confidently: (a) identify what the brand hopes to achieve through their experiential work; and (b) recommend strategies and tactics that will achieve those objectives. If it is well written, the RFP should help the agency with (a) and the agency should make sure everyone involved in crafting the response is well-acquainted with the contents of the RFP. That said, it is a mistake to simply rely on what the brand has written in their brief. Investigate other publicly available information about the brand (LinkedIn posts, trade articles, press releases, annual reports) to develop a fuller understanding. In addition, take the opportunity to ask questions during the RFP’s Q&A period to round out your agency’s understanding. I caution my current clients to be wary of agencies that do not submit questions during the Q&A round as it suggests that they might not be taking the process seriously.

Focusing too much on the agency.

It is certainly understandable to want to take the opportunity - especially with a prospective new client - to shine a light on your agency, its history, mission, values, recent awards and client roster. That said, do not lose sight of the fact that your response needs to concisely demonstrate that your agency understands the brand’s objectives, and has the right strategy, tactics and infrastructure (at an acceptable price) to deliver against those objectives. The vast majority of your response needs to be centered there. Also, bear in mind that, as long as the prospective client has done a minimal amount of due diligence before inviting you to the dance, they likely already have a decent understanding of your agency’s background information.

Having the wrong people in the room. As soon as the agency receives the RFP, the person leading the response effort needs to immediately start assessing who should be involved in that effort. Of your team of strategists, creatives and account leads, who is the right fit for this brand and has the time and desire to fully engage in the process? What subject matter experts need to contribute and/or review content? Who will be in the room if you get a chance to present to the client? What team will be assigned if you are successful? Everyone involved in the response effort must digest the brief and fully understand the brand’s objectives. Those that will be in the room must also understand your agency’s strategy and tactical recommendations and how those will address the brand’s objectives. Finally, everyone in the room must have a clearly defined purpose for being there. Everyone in the room must have a contextual understanding of their role and how it fits into the larger picture. No one in the room should be there for show.

Ignoring the why. When conveying your strategy recommendations, it is critical to make your case as to why your strategy will address the brand objectives. What empirical data do you have to support your case? When you move from strategy to tactics, explain why those specific tactics are going to pay off your strategy. Too many agencies focus on what, how and where without first making the case for why. (Note: On the topic of “why”, consider dedicating some real estate to the broader argument in favor of experiential as an effective discipline for delivering value. It never hurts to reinforce for brand stakeholders that dedicating money to experiential is a wise choice.)

Not asking for feedback. Whether you have won or you have lost, actively seek out honest and constructive feedback from the brand. Not only will this allow you to improve future response efforts, it demonstrates to brand stakeholders that you value their opinions and that you want to improve. Remember that you should be viewing the RFP as a chance to forge a larger and more enduring relationship beyond the current opportunity. So, if you have lost, avoid the common rationalizations that agency’s often use to make themselves feel better (i.e. “we killed it, but they didn’t get it/this was just a pricing exercise/they already had their minds made up”). Get some valuable feedback and internalize that feedback to get better. And, if you have won, show your client that their insight means at least as much as their fees.